Shakespeare gets a hip-hop twist at Emerald City Theatre

It’s time to admit that we, as a society, owe Lin-Manuel Miranda a huge debt of gratitude.

Not only did he make it cool to go to the theater again (and to spend ungodly amounts of money to do so), but now his influence is also extending to the world of children’s theater. And on behalf of all of us who can’t bear one more nails-on-a-chalkboard rendition of a typical “kids’ theater” tune, I say thanks.

The Hamilton scribe’s fingerprints are all over Emerald City Theatre’s latest production, “Magic Tree House: Showtime with Shakespeare.” The play, recommended for ages 5 and up, adapts Mary Pope Osborne’s Stage Fright on a Summer Night with a hip-hop twist. This Bard of Avon is a bit more Common than commonplace, spitting rhymes and dropping beats like he’s one of America’s founding fathers. (Now there’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever write.)

Our family’s resident Magic Tree House expert attested that the production is faithful to #25 in the kid- favorite book series, touching on things like being kind to animals and overcoming your fears. Fans of Osborne’s books will love seeing their friends Jack (Nik Kmiecik), wearing his ever-present glasses and carrying a backpack, and Annie (Emily Senkowsky), in her signature pigtails, on stage and talking about their previous adventures, like seeing dinosaurs or adventuring in the Amazon rainforest.

As a Shakespeare fangirl, I loved the frequent, subtle references to the Bard’s famous works throughout the show, from “Hamlet” to “Twelfth Night,” as well as the more overt synopsis of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” (the play that Jack and Annie join as sprites). I thought that the fast pace of the music would make it difficult for kids to pick up on the finer nuances of that play’s convoluted plot, but my young companions weren’t all that fazed.

Beyond the connections to beloved literature of both the 16th and 21st centuries, Showtime with Shakespeare also has a lovely message – summarized in the final song, “Thy Life is a Miracle” (yep, a reference to King Lear) – about all the things that make life special, including those intangible qualities that make Jack and Annie shine.

The intimate theater where Emerald City performs means that every seat is a good one and audience members feel immersed in the action – especially when actors leave the stage to sing and dance in the aisles. The actors are all kid-friendly and approachable, which is a good thing since cast members sign autographs in the lobby post-show. We were especially delighted by Leon J. Evans as “Will” (that’s Shakespeare to you!), who imbues the famous writer with a down-to-earth charm.

And while the Hamilton phenomenon is definitely a welcome one, Emerald City truly deserves the kudos in this case. The cast and crew didn’t throw away their shot to combine Shakespeare’s words, Osborne’s characters and some very contemporary beats to create a show that can appeal to kids and parents alike. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

If you go:

Through Feb. 25

$19 and up

Apollo Theater,  2540 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago

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